Mirror for Devout People

On the Place of the Mirror to Devout People (Speculum Devotorum) in the Middle English Pseudo-Bonaventuran Tradition

Allan F. Westphall

(written 2010)


The Mirror to Devout People (Mirror) is a long, comprehensive meditative life of Christ in 33 chapters (one for each year in Christ’s life). A substantial prologue carefully establishes a paratext showing the Mirror to be a request work written by a Carthusian author for a nun of Syon. The text is thus a product of the personal and textual interrelationships between the silent and eremitic Carthusian charterhouse of Sheen and the neighbouring Birgittine Abbey of Syon, and supports very well what we know of the Carthusian and Birgittine ethos of offering preaching and private ministry through the production and circulation of devotional works. We may assume that Mirror was composed probably not very long after Nicholas Love’s Mirror of the Blessed Life of Jesus Christ of c. 1410, a text to which the author alludes in his preface. The two manuscripts that preserve Mirror date in all likelihood from between 1430-1460.

An Anxiety of Influence?

In the preface, the author signals his familiarity with both Bonaventura’s Meditationes vitae Christi and Nicholas Love’s reworking of it. The recent tendency has been to see the author of Mirror for Devout People as both adapting the Latin Meditationes and at the same time as agonising about writing a life of Christ after the accomplishment of Nicholas Love who produced the important (near)full-scale translation of the Latin meditative treatise: some commentators have seen an anxiety of influence on the part of the English author which nearly made him abort his project, for what could he possibly hope to add to such a rich and comprehensive literary tradition already available in English and to a wide range of English readerships?

But although Mirror for Devout People proclaims its Bonaventuran heritage, and the tone and arrangement of material – the rough skeletal outline – bear witness to the pervasive influence of the Meditationes, this text is not strictly speaking a pseudo-Bonaventuran work and to term it a vernacular translation or even adaptation of Meditationes is problematic.

Indeed, instead of viewing the relationship of the Mirror to the Latin Meditationes (and its vernacular progeny) in terms of translation or adaptation, we might usefully talk about the Mirror’s development and the reconfiguration of a genre in order to address a specific and specialised audience. The pervasive influence of earlier meditative texts (like those attributed to Bonaventura) form the necessary backdrop that provides the Carthusian author with the opportunity to produce a new and independent work, as well as to innovate didactic and catechetic instruction within the genre.

Thus, when the author in Mirror talks about ‘he that wrote first the meditations following’ (as he does in two places) he refers to himself and not to Bonaventura. When he anticipates criticism from his reader ‘that I that am but a simple man should do such a work after so worthy a man as Bonaventura was, since he wrote of the same matter’, the implication is, I believe, that he writes after Bonaventura in time, not in imitation or translation of him. While both the Carthusian author of Mirror and St Bonaventura share the same ‘matter’, we have two independent authorial agencies and two separate productions within the genre of vita Christi. The Carthusian author, in other words, produces a distinct text and views his text as an original composition. Following a suggestion from Ian Johnson, ‘Para-Bonaventuran’ might thus be a more accurate descriptor than ’pseudo-Bonaventuran’ when we consider the relation of Mirror to previous and widely circulated vitae Christi.

The author resorts to conventional topos when he registers a measure of anxiety and inadequacy in the prologue, but he proves himself to be independent and unusually assured in his handling of sources as he offers readers accessible and selective presentation of an impressive range of theological material. The extent of sources that are drawn on has been described thoroughly by Vincent Gillespie in his essay ‘The Haunted Text’ and by Paul Patterson in his recent edition of the text (see references below). As is clear from their accounts, the author of Mirror teams up with an impressive range of exegetical authorities; most notably he draws extensively on Nicholas of Lyra as the chief guiding authority, whose Postilla glossed the biblical literal sense and eliminated layers of allegorical meaning. Here he finds contextualising exposition, which does not develop doctrine but offer details of topography, historical setting, customs and laws, etymology and genealogy and much more.

Through his impressive source material the author offers a mix of meditation and quasi-clerical knowledge that he deems suitable for a reader in the liminal space between lay and clerical, and possibly tailored to a Birgittine cycle of liturgical observance. Here, affectivity and extensive exegesis are not dichotomies or readerly options, but come as a complete package designed to educate the reader in the act of reading and in the process of moral application. Unlike other pseudo-Bonaventuran texts, this ’para-Bonaventuran’ text insists on the interdependence of extended exegetical education and interior moral reform. The open, literal sense is the predominant exegetical and hermeneutic mode in A Mirror’s programme of reforming reading. But here, the desire to fix biblical meaning through literal sense exegesis, and the provision of affective/meditative augmentation of the gospel narrative are not seen as mutually exclusive. In the text, the term ’open understanding’ becomes the denominator for accessible doctrine and a method of literal interpretation and exposition. With such appeal to openness and accessibility, the Middle English author moves in contested space; it is instructive to find a sophisticated textual hermeneutic that centres on the literal, open meaning of scripture in a setting that much recent scholarship has understood as a bastion of orthodox devotion in late medieval England.

Filling in the Gaps: Providing an Extensive Supplement to the Lives of Christ Tradition

We might say that the process of harmonising gospel accounts serves as the justification and guiding theoretical principle of Mirror, and underlies the authors handling of the Bible and commentary. Just as a harmonisation of evangelists is desirable for the full narrative of Christ’s life, and just as biblical commentators usefully supplement each other in offering an authoritative gloss on this life, so the author of Mirror sees merit in harmonising gospel and commentary material to produce a supplementation to other meditative lives of Christ. With such rationale in mind, and when turning to the subject of Christ’s actions from age 12-30, the author does not wish to repeat what is found in other Passion narratives, for as he says, ‘you have heard sufficiently, I trowe, in other meditations before’. Instead he views the reader’s familiarity with other gospel accounts as the opportunity to provide meditative material typically absent from these accounts by drawing on material from St Birgitta’s Revelations, obviously with particular appeal and resonance to his addressed Birgittine reader(s). Similarly, he does not wish to reiterate Christ’s words on the Cross as these are available in multiple other sources fully glossed for meditative purposes. The author omits such treatment and, unusually, offers an explanation of the meaning of the sign above Christ on the Cross – a contextualising gloss that does not find a place in the pseudo-Bonaventuran textual tradition.

It is highly likely that in these and other instances, the author is assuming not just a reader well-versed in meditative writing and in the genre of vita Christi, but also the co-existence of different meditative treatises in a programme of reforming reading, such as that conducted in the Birgittine Abbey of Syon.

Addressing the Advanced Birgittine Reader

It seems reasonable to suggest that, compared to the other pseudo-Bonaventuran lives of Christ, Mirror contains little meditation in the sense of prolonged affective, imaginative passages. Its interest appears to be with moral edification and adding layers of contextual, glossatory commentary, not so much with remaining in the affective mode or exercising the faculty of the imagination for affective purposes. We see in Mirror comparatively few extended reflections on the interior image of sin and few attempts to stir to an attitude or contrition and self-loathing, such as we see it in e.g. The Prickynge of Love or Meditations on the Supper, both pseudo-Bonaventuran works. This is not to say that the author of Mirror is disinterested in the operation of sustained ‘ymaginacions’, or in fostering mental states of pity and contrition. More correct, perhaps, is that he assumes the reader’s acquired competence in the discipline of affective and meditative reading, rather than seeks to facilitate it to any notable extent. In a similar way, the author makes little effort to outline an imaginative process of empathising with Christ in his suffering: such elaboration is detailed in numerous other Christocentric meditative and penitential treatises, and the author can assume the reader’s competence in developing the material presented before her into interior imaginative re-enactments. Any such understanding would be fully consonant both with the author’s address to member of the Syon community who is advanced in devotional reading, and with his rationale of harmonising accounts and anticipating the coexistence of meditative writings.

Mirror offers material for meditation in the scripture-based and systematic way that we may assume appealed to Syon nuns. The author assumes that his reader practises a distinct form of life, anchored in reiterated liturgy, in practices with an institutional foundation, and always in a continuum with other texts and other acts of reading. With the Mirror, the reader would have access to a formative model of biblical reflection, which does not require regular reading of the Bible itself, but which certainly does not preclude it either. This model provides an exemplary progress towards moral application, with the structural ‘ordinatio’ of each of the 33 chapters beginning with literal and contextualising exposition of the Passion narrative and then extrapolating the spiritual and moral ‘utilitas’ hereof. Each chapter, in other words, becomes a lesson in textual reflection with the same hermeneutic process re-applied, comprising stages of concentrated reading, recollection, reflection and moral application.

This constitutes in itself a programme of further education in the act of reading, which integrates affective and intellectual ambitions, and would be readily applicable to other texts, such as might be found in the rich Syon library. Indeed it seems safe to assume that many of the texts briefly excerpted in Mirror could be accessed for further consultation in the Syon library (and as far as I know there is no evidence of any limits ever being imposed on the number of books to be accessed or owned by a Syon nun). In Mirror the reader would find a form of ‘hermeneutic grid’ for the discipline of improving reading within the religious house: here was outlined an exemplary ‘modus operandi’ that was to be applied and mirrored in the encounter with other religious texts in order to extract and elucidate the profound, ethical meaning of the literal sense.

In this text-conscious environment, the process of ‘discretio’ applies not just to the discernment of spirits and the possible delusion in spiritual sensations: it applies to the act of reading itself and to a consideration of issues of textual authority and authenticity. This becomes clear in the author’s mention of the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus, which contains detail on Christ’s Descent to Hell. At first the author invokes this source as an absent presence in his text; an inauthentic source not appropriately used as a basis for meditation:

Bot for it is not autentike, and also for the seid doctor Lyre preueth it euydentely fals by autorite of Holy Wryte and sayynges of other doctors, I ouerpasse it and wolle not putte suche thynges here that is so vnsiker and myghte be cause of erroure to simple creatures. (p. 208 in Patterson’s edition)

Later, the same apocryphal gospel is used as the source that the resurrected Christ appeared after his Resurrection to Joseph of Arimathea, with the qualifying statement that

this apperynge is redde in the gospel of Nichodeme, as it is aforeseide. Bot for it is not autentyke, as I haue tolde yowe before in the xxviii chapitle, I commytte it to the dome of the reder whether he woll admytte it or none. (p. 217 in Patterson’s edition)

Indicative of the erudite and institutional milieu for which Mirror was intended, the author assumes an ability to discern between valid and deceitful visions, but also between canonical and apocryphal material. Such sustained engagement with issues of textual authority, approved writing and the correct handling of scriptural apocrypha does not feature in any of the pseudo-Bonaventuran meditative texts, several of which might well have been intended primarily for lay audiences.

The Mirror appears to suggest a new orientation in Middle English lives of Christ towards contextualising exposition, and it represents tendencies other than the sustained affective immersion and imaginative re-creation that characterise earlier meditations. Its quasi-clerical, harmonising drive looks forward towards the Continental and far more encyclopaedic compilations of Jordan of Quedlinburg’s Meditationes de Passione Christi, Ludolph of Saxony’s Vita Christi and Ulrich Pinder’s Speculum Passionis (translated/adapted by Syon confessor general John Fewterer’s as the Myrrour or Glasse of Christes Passion): all of these are extravagant in their eclecticism, offering a ‘summa’ of explanatory, catechetic, moralising material, rather than meditative elaboration with a clear affective component. The sometimes rather abrupt transitions between discourse types that we find in the Mirror (for example, gospel narrative, allegory, exegetical contextualisation, prayer, moral extrapolation), foreshadow the complex ordering of material, demarcation of discourses and marginal referencing represented structurally and typographically in, for instance, John Fewterer’s later printed Syon Myrrour.


Primary texts

•Hogg, James, The Speculum Devotorum of an Anonymous Carthusian of Sheen. Analecta Cartusiana 12-13 (1973-74).

•Patterson, Paul J. ed. Myrror to Devout People (Speculum Devotorum): An Edition with Commentary. Forthcoming.

Secondary texts

•Brantley, Jessica, ‘The Visual Environment of Carthusian Texts: Decoration and Illustration in Notre Dame 67. In The Text in the Community: Essays on Medieval works, Manuscripts, Authors and Readers, ed. by Jill Mann and Maura Nolan (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006) pp. 217-37.

•Edwards, A. S. G., ‘The Contexts of Notre Dame 67’, in The Text in the Community, pp. 107-28.

•Gillespie, Vincent, ‘The Haunted Text: Reflections in A Mirror to Devout People’, in The Text in the Community, pp. 129-72.

•Johnson, Ian, ‘Prologue and Practice: Middle English Lives of Christ’, in The Medieval Translator: The Theory and Practice of Translation in the Middle Ages, ed. by Roger Ellis (Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 1989) pp. 69-85.

•- ‘Vernacular Valorizing: Functions and Fashionings of Literary Theory in Middle English Translation of Authority, in Translation Theory and Practice in the Middle Ages, ed. by Jeanette Beer (Kalamazoo, MI.: Western Michigan UP, 1997) pp. 239-54.

•Keiser, George R, ‘Middle English Passion Narratives and their Contemporary Readers: The Vernacular Progeny of Meditationes Vitae Christi’, in The Mystical Tradition and the Carthusians. Analecta Cartusiana 10 (1995) pp. 85-100.

•Phillips, Dianne, ‘The Meditations on the Life of Christ: An Illuminated Fourteenth-Century Italian Manuscript at the University of Notre Dame’, in The Text in the Community, pp. 237-83.

•Rebecca Selman, ‘Spirituality and Sex Change: Horologium sapientiae and Speculum devotorum’, in Writing Religious Women: Female Spiritual and Textual Practices in Late Medieval England, ed. by Denis Renevey and Christiania Whitehead (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2000) pp. 63-81.